success stories

Posted January 28, 2003

The Importance of One’s Culture in Healing

"Father Juan"
Taken from St. Luke’s Institute, Silver Springs, MD

Case Study: Father Juan

Father "Juan" is a 47-year old priest born and raised in Central America., who recently came to the United States for some rest at the request of his Provincial. Fr. Juan is viewed by others as a pious man and a hard-worker, but also as somewhat of a loner who spends his recreational time by himself. His peers frequently complained of feeling uncomfortable around him due to his aloof style.

Concerned about Fr. Juan's happiness and well-being, his Provincial asked to see him soon after his arrival at the retreat house. Initially, Fr. Juan resisted this request, citing his difficulty with speaking English. Unknown to the Provincial, Fr. Juan also felt very shamed by his removal from his parish, thinking that he had failed.

Hidden Trauma

During his conversation with the Provincial, Fr. Juan spoke of his alcoholic father, who worked long hours as a laborer and spent most nights drinking with friends. Upon returning home, his father would frequently become violent, yelling and sometimes hitting his wife. As Fr. Juan started to grow up, he too became the victim of his father's abuse. Fr. Juan even provoked him into a fight sometimes so as to protect his mother and siblings.

Fr. Juan excelled at school, but had difficulty trusting others enough to form close friendships. As a result, he spent much of his time involved in solitary pursuits, such as reading and volunteering at his parish. As he matured, he felt a call towards ministry and applied to a missionary community. He was excited and eager to be sent out to minister to his fellow countrymen and women.

During his second year at the parish, Fr. Juan was traumatized when his parish was attacked and partly set on fire. Several parishioners were killed as they tried to extinguish the flames. Following this tragedy, Fr. Juan struggled to cope with both grief and guilt about what had happened. His sleeping diminished and his appetite disappeared. Because Fr. Juan felt obliged to restore the parish to its former condition, no matter what the cost, he threw himself into work, resisting any efforts from his Provincial to rest or take a retreat.

When Fr. Juan's Provincial visited, he was found a shaken, emaciated man and a rectory in disarray. He arranged for Fr. Juan to take a four-month sabbatical in order to rest and heal from his experiences. Upon arrival at his community's retreat house in the U.S., Fr. Juan could communicate very little because he spoke little English and only a few priests at the retreat house could communicate in his native Spanish. A shy man, by nature, speaking to others about his troubles did not come easily. With the added language and culture barrier, he soon began isolating himself from the community, sleeping for prolonged periods of time, and drinking more each day in order to 'calm his nerves.' Some in his community viewed Fr. Juan as lazy and unmotivated to participate in community life. Others noticed the increase in his drinking.

Culture, Trauma, & 'Working Through'

Research into the experiences of trauma survivors has taught us that the more persons are able to access their experiences of trauma via thoughts, speech, and emotions, the more they are able to incorporate the experience in a healthy way into their sense of identity. Those individuals who go on as if nothing happened, or simply refuse to acknowledge the extent of their emotional reaction to a trauma, are less likely to 'work through' the effects of the trauma and, therefore, attain an increased sense of peace.

Culture and language play a key role in healing. If persons are limited in their ability to express verbally their experience to others and be understood, they are equally limited in their ability to 'work through' their experiences. For Fr. Juan, his experience of not being heard took place on both the literal and figurative levels.

In a similar way, culture can play a key role in a person's ability to work through traumatic experiences. After the September 11th attacks, for example, many of us in the U.S. drew strength and support from the sense of nationalism that arose, were inspired by the flags raised on overpasses, or the national level charity campaigns that ensued. Many of us were comforted by the sights and sounds of our day-to-day routines, a retreat to friends and family, or by an organized vigil or memorial service. The one component that provides consistency to all these events: our shared cultural experiences. Fr. Juan was brought to the retreat house for healing following his traumatic experience. However, removed from his native culture, he failed to find the support and understanding he needed, leading to increased isolation and distress.

Cultural Expectations and Coping

In many ways, culture creates the lens by which we understand the basic elements of our experiences. Fr. Juan's ability to 'work through' his trauma seems directly impacted by his ability to be understood and by these factors: family loyalty and gender roles.

Different cultures convey different expectations for members within their family of origin. Our own North American bias is to accentuate often the individuality of members within a family. But this is not the case for many other cultures. It may be difficult for abused members of families to find peace when cultural expectations emphasize the intactness of the family, importance of maintaining familial connections and family loyalty.

Gender roles often differ between cultures and dictate what kind of behavior is appropriate for both men and women. How much of Fr. Juan's struggle is associated with cultural restrictions for how men express emotions? On another level, culture informs what it means to be successful (e.g, wealth, loyalty, hard work). Fr. Juan's distress following his removal from the parish may be related to cultural expectations for success.

In many ways, the influence of culture remains invisible because of its omnipresence in our lives and minds. This invisibility also complicates our ability to connect with others in a helpful and meaningful way, unless we remain mindful of not only our own biases, but also how they may differ from the expectations of others, especially those from different cultures.

By Andrew Martin, Psy.D is a therapist at Saint Luke Institute